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Entries in Nell Benjamin (1)

Monday
Apr162012

Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin: Life of the Party

Photo Credit: Bruce GlikasLaurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin received the 2007 Tony and Drama Desk nomination for their work on "Legally Blonde, The Musical," (written by Heather Hach and directed/choreographed by Jerry Mitchell), which also won the Olivier Award for Best Musical in London. They are also the co-authors of "Cam Jensen" (Drama Desk nomination) and "The Mice," and wrote the music and lyrics for "Sarah, Plain and Tall" (Theatreworks USA).

Individually, Laurence won the Ed Kleban Award, the ASCAP Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award, and a Jonathan Larson award for his music and lyrics. His off-Broadway credits include "Bat Boy: The Musical" (Lucille Lortel, Richard Rodgers, Outer Critics’ Circle awards), which has received 100+ productions worldwide. Nell adapted "Pirates of Penzance" for Goodspeed Opera House. She won a Kleban Award and is the recipient of a Jonathan Larson Foundation grant, and is a member of ASCAP and the Dramatists Guild of America.

Laurence and Nell are once again collaborating together, with "Life of the Party," a new opera written especially for the students of La Guardia High School of Music and Arts. This new show is set in the Soviet Union in 1953. It's about a naive young Party apparatchik handed a suicidal mission: create a Communist movie musical to compete with the West and glorify Stalin. She tracks down her favorite director, now disgraced and laboring in the gulag, and he in turn hires the ex-wife who denounced him. A story of love, revenge, and trying to make art under tyranny, Life of the Party explores a very timely message: you can't escape cruelty by passing it on. "Life of the Party" plays a very limited run, from May 3-6, at Concert Hall at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in NYC (100 Amsterdam Avenue). Click here for tickets!

1. Who or what inspired you to become lyricist/composers?

Our parents raised us on Monty Python (full of silly songs), Gilbert & Sullivan (equally full of silly songs) and, oddly, a lot of Irish political songs (many beautiful but others among the silliest of them all). We grew up doing live theater and we both were drawn to working under the hood; the actual mechanics of writing and creating seemed as fascinating as performing. In college we worked on the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, America's oldest drag show, which features book, lyrics and music by undergrads. We competed and won the writing and composing jobs and got a great firsthand education in how you put a show together, with the instant feedback of 8 performances a week in front of live audiences.

We each noticed, growing up, that a joke can be funny, and a tune can be pretty, but neither alone is as awesome as both together. We can't imagine a better life than making a living writing funny songs.

2. How did you start working together? You married in 2001, has the dynamic of your work changed since getting married? If so, how do you feel it has changed?

We dated for two years before we wrote shows together, but even before that we were helping each other with various projects, and we've always loved making each other laugh. The great thing about working with your spouse is that you're working with the person you trust most in the room. And it gives us a lot of professional things to fight about, so things are less fraught when you have to work out the personal things, like who takes the garbage out. It is, however, funny to watch a roomful of people go all quiet in rehearsal when we argue over lyrics. They clearly think our disagreement is more fraught because we're a couple. They're waiting for one of us to shout "Divorce!" but really, that's quite rare.

3. What made you want to write "Life of the Party"? 

Back in 1997 we saw a documentary called "East Side Story" about the brave artists who made movie musicals in Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries. We were enthralled. Making a musical is tough enough without the threat of prison and death hanging over your head. The idea of a life or death struggle to make something as silly as a musical struck us as dark and absurd at the same time. And we love dark and absurd.

As we explored the idea, though, we realized it was a little bigger and weirder than your average musical. Initially we only thought of the absurdity: the comedy of numbers about grain production quotas and so on, but when you read some of the history of the Stalin era and discover the extent of the repression and tragedy, you can't just make a silly comedy out of it. You don't want to do a disservice to the people who lived -- sometimes bravely, sometimes less so -- through it. 

So as the story began to develop, loosely based on real people, and how they had loved and worked and betrayed or defended one another,  we realized that we couldn't be flippant; it wasn't just a traditional let's-put-on-a-show story set in the wacky Soviet Union; it couldn't be The Producers, because there already was a Producers. So that's when we weren't sure what to do with it. 

And then we had the very good fortune to see our friend Paul Lincoln's production of Kismet at LaGuardia High School.

4. What made you want to write "Life of the Party" specifically for the students of LaGuardia High School of Music and Arts?

Paul and the students did an amazing job on Kismet, with very little rehearsal time, very little budget and with all these other pressures hanging over their heads, which is not unlike what the Russian movie makers had to deal with.

When Paul asked us if we would consider writing an original opera for LaGuardia, we were thrilled, but having never written a big, fancy opera, we wondered what we would write it about. And then we remembered our old idea about Soviet movie musicals. And somehow the size of the cast and orchestra available suddenly made us realize how to do it; somehow making it with the opera program helped add the dignity and gravity that would balance our anarchic and facetious tendencies. 

It's a very adult piece with some difficult themes, and the students and the school are brave to take it on. Any original piece is a huge challenge because it's being written as you rehearse it. Things change every day. You learn your lines ahead of time and then some horrible writer changes them and you have to start all over.

You also don't have other productions to look at, nor the confidence of knowing your show has been approved by previous audiences. When you do South Pacific, or HMS Pinafore, you have the comfort of knowing people have responded positively to those shows for years. On a new piece, students take a leap of faith with us every day, and that is hugely inspiring and humbling to us.

5. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing "Life of the Party"?

Our main point, which is as suitable for a high school as it is for a giant repressive regime, is that cruelty and tyranny begin or end with one person. When anyone passes even a small cruelty along, as we all do when we are stressed and scared-- it builds a system of fear and repression that soon feeds itself. All the characters in the show live in a place where standing up to injustice is unthinkable, and the only clear survival strategy is to pass the madness along. They may even feel justified doing it, for reasons of revenge or self-preservation.

But what's amazing is that the artists we studied found ways to communicate hope, joy, even secret messages of liberty and freedom, even after the movies were censored and butchered and re-edited by scores of censors and re-writers, even all the way up to Stalin himself.  Somehow these artists kept a spark alive. As a result many of these films are beloved in the former Iron Curtain countries even today. We wanted to honor that too.

6. What has been the best part about working with Paul Lincoln? How did this collaboration between you happen? 

The best part about working with Paul Lincoln is we trust one another.  We've known him for over a decade, and having been friends before we were collaborators, we try not to be rude to each other. Unless it results in a really good punchline. Paul has a huge amount of experience in a dozen disciplines - music, singing, acting, dance, directing, design. He also is tireless and generous and the kids know it. They sense how lucky they are, and it helps motivate and focus them. And motivating and focusing a cast of 65 seventeen-year-olds is hard.

But we should also add that these kids are among the most dedicated and talented people we've ever worked with. The amount of trust, commitment, energy and generosity which they have given to our untested, unproven show is probably a lot more than we deserve.

7. What is your favorite part of the creative process in writing lyrics/music for a show? Where is your favorite place to write? 

We like being in a rehearsal room when actors start saying their lines and you start rewriting specifically to suit them. This back-and-forth has all kinds of benefits - it helps them breathe better, time things better; sound better, land jokes and heartfelt moments better. It's much more exciting to hear what an actor does with your line than to listen to the voices in your head. Listening to the voices in your head is a dangerous long-term strategy.

8. Is your writing process different for stage work than film/television? If so, how?

The writing process for us is very similar; there are many similarities in the drafts, deadlines, readings, workshops, etc. The only real difference is the amount of money involved and the amount of power the employers have. But their goals are the same too; to protect their investment of time and money, and to make audiences happy.

I think the differences come less from the medium and more from who initiated the project. If you write your own show and sell it you have a different position than if you get hired to adapt someone else's preexisting property. But we try to take a consistent approach and always take jobs that offer a clear point and shows with a clear message that entertain and inspire us. And be as nice as we can from the first meeting on.

9. You have written the music and lyrics for two of my favorite theatrical shows "Legally Blonde" and "Bat Boy." Looking back, what was the best part about writing for these two shows?

So glad you like them! Thanks very much. Well, the saddest part about Bat Boy was that Nell didn't work on it. Larry regrets that. But Blonde was a great experience in tons of ways. Our favorite memory was the Sitzprobe in San Francisco, a few days before our first preview, when our cast and band packed into a tiny room to play and sing the full orchestrations for the first time. After three weeks of tech it was the best party we'd ever been to.

10. What have you learned about yourselves from being lyricist/composers?

We have learned that we are competitive with each other. And we've learned how to edit, which is much harder than learning to write. It's very hard to learn to cut your own writing down, and to edit out your own fabulous ideas, but if your fabulous ideas don't work, they're not fabulous. And when your writing partner/spouse tells you to cut them, well, it's worth listening to.

11. What's the best advice you've ever received? 

Our favorite is: "If it can be cut, it must be cut." And the second best is: "all plot and all songs begin with the question, why is today different from all other days?"

12. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? 

A huge, happy audience. (It makes those dreams where you're naked so much better).

BONUS QUESTIONS:

13. Favorite way to spend your day off?

In a hotel room in a foreign country.

14. If you could have any super power, which would you choose?

Mind control. There are lots of superpowers that are great in a fight, but how much better if you don't have to fight at all because everyone always agrees with you. I often think of Star Wars: when you're young and you first see the Star Wars films you think "Light sabers are the coolest weapon to fight with!" and then you see the Jedi throwing things around and shooting lightning with their hands and think "No, that's the coolest weapon in a fight! You don't have to worry about where you put your lightsaber!" But then you re-watch Alec Guinness say "These are not the droids you're looking for" and realize "Not getting into a fight is the best of all."